US Launches ‘Pathbreaking’ Concept That Aims To Dramatically Reshape How Future Aerial Battles Are Fought

The United States Air Force (USAF) has positioned Artificial Intelligence-driven autonomous systems as adjunct aircraft as a requisite for future battles. Building on that idea, Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary Skunk Works just launched ‘Project Carrera.’

The Advanced Projects Group at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works announced that it plans to create what is being dubbed a highly human-centric, adaptable autonomy framework. The concept builds on the distributed manned-unmanned teaming framework.

The Skunk Works General Manager John Clark stated that “Project Carrera” is a multi-year investment in which the company plans to invest $100 million in drones, artificial intelligence, and F-35 upgrades, along with cutting-edge communications technologies that will connect all the other components.

An array of artificial intelligence-driven software-based control systems will be at the center of this concept, allowing different tiers of uncrewed aircraft to operate with differing levels of autonomy and cooperate with their crewed counterparts.

Initial flight testing of these ideas will start soon at Skunk Works, and the first tests will hook up its Speed Racer drone with the variants of the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Speed Racer is an experimental, low-cost “pathfinder” design created initially to showcase cutting-edge manufacturing and innovative digital engineering methodologies.

The modular architecture of the drone makes it reasonably simple to reconfigure for various task sets, which is why it could potentially be a good starting point to test evolving ideas. The unmanned system will be used as an expendable aircraft in collaboration with the F-35 fighter jet.

Clark stated in no ambiguous terms: “What we’re really focusing on is a systematic build up where we can evaluate that human and uncrewed system interaction, and understand how those behaviors build up over time.”

The announcement comes a few months after Clark revealed a broader strategy for a comprehensive multi-layered, distributed crewed-uncrewed teaming concept in a press briefing in July.

It also comes at a time when the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) is in focus for the Next-Gen fighter jet.

According to Clark, Project Carrera will influence what Lockheed eventually suggests for the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) effort, a variety of uncrewed combat drones that will supplement the F-35, F-22, and the upcoming sixth-generation fighter slated to be the centerpiece of the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems.

The USAF Secretary Frank Kendall announced that the service could float a contest for the drone counterpart of the sixth-generation manned fighter as early as fiscal 2024, as recently reported by the EurAsian Times.

Project Carrera
Lockheed Martin’s rendering of an unmanned aircraft flying alongside the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.

What Is Skunk Works Developing?

In July this year, Clarks said that as opposed to the so-called “loyal wingman,” which includes air combat drones functioning “tethered” to manned platforms in a rigid manner, a multi-layered “distributed team” of various unmanned aircraft working in concert with manned kinds presents a much more competent alternative.

At the time, a video released by the company showed four distinct pilotless platforms, from lower-end expendable and “attritable” types to more high-end ones, all meant to cooperate with each other and with current (F-35, for instance) and future manned combat aircraft (the NGAD) in complementary ways.

At the time, the Skunk Works Chief stated that his company was looking at ways in which low-earth orbit satellites and even expendable or attritable aircraft could complement the crewed aircraft, as previously noted by The War Zone.

In the recent briefing, Clark explained: “The whole idea was, instead of making the human adapt around the software systems built, we would make the software system adapt around the human.”

The idea behind Project Carrera is centered on the fact that these unmanned aircraft would work together with the manned aircraft with the flexibility to accommodate an array of human-centric factors.

Flexibility With Autonomy To Guide Project Carrera

The concept of “flexible autonomy,” an AI brain for unmanned systems that can adjust to the demands and preferences of the user, is essential to Project Carrera. The user can choose how much control they want over the uncrewed system at any time throughout a mission.

For instance, a more inexperienced pilot might decide to adopt a more hands-off approach, while a pilot with years of expertise and a high degree of comfort in the fighter cockpit can control every action of the drones under their command.

“The underlying behaviors, the autonomy, the way in which the rest of the ecosystem works together — that is exactly what we want to uncover in these series of experiments, to understand how you would actually field this type of capability,” he said.

According to Clark, the uncrewed component should support the crew component rather than replace it. The specific illustration he presented involved a squadron of highly autonomous unmanned aircraft investigating or perhaps even confounding an adversary’s air defenses while relaying danger information to their crewed equivalents.

He continued by saying that the earliest stages will mostly be concerned with establishing the fundamental “behaviors” that autonomous uncrewed aircraft will need to have. Then, at later stages, researchers will examine how unmanned systems with such autonomous capabilities will carry out a whole “kill chain” during a single mission, including when working alongside crewed vehicles.

Following that, attention might turn to how everything fits into a larger “kill web” that includes a far wider range of assets, including space-based systems.

Aviation Analyst Prashant Prabhakar told EurAsian Times: “From what is known, Project Carerra wants to explore how AI can be successfully integrated into overall flight operations and see the degree of automation/control that the pilots can have over these drones at any given point in the mission.

A manned fighter aircraft also serves as the centerpiece of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. It has been called the F-X or Penetrating Counter-Air (PCA), and unmanned “Loyal Wingman” platforms would support it.

The way I see it,  the core concept basically remains the same. The drones deployed would supplement the combat action of the fighter craft (whichever that is, the F35 in case of Project Carerra) or lets just they would act as force multipliers.”

Lockheed Martin concept art showing an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flying with various types of unmanned aircraft- Lockheed Martin.

Project Carrera will feature Speed Racer prominently, but Lockheed also wants to show off additional aircraft and top-secret payloads. Speed Racer is currently made to be disposable, according to Clark, and is expected to cost “considerably less than $2 million” per copy.

But Lockheed is also investing in mid and high-end drones that might be made available for the CCA program.

He made it clear that systems from Lockheed Martin’s Skyborg program, some of which have flown aboard Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie drones during testing, have already been transferred to the U.S. Air Force and would feed into Carrera.

Clark continued by saying that data from Skunk Works suggests that a focus on less expensive, extensible, air-launched drones could ease other operational and logistical strains.

He made a point of highlighting how a game like Speed Racer doesn’t need runways or other substantial infrastructure, but any platform transporting it undoubtedly would.

The U.S. military has emphasized concerns about the vulnerability of existing airfields and other infrastructure in potential future high-end conflicts against near-peer adversaries, such as China or Russia, and the need for new alternative and distributed basing concepts in those situations.